BBC: Armenia – the country breeding a generation of chess whizz kids

Since 2011, all children in Armenia from six to eight years old have had compulsory chess lessons. For one boy it’s paying off, reports BBC’s Emma Levine.

“I was trapped. Surrounded on all sides, and there was no escape. The king’s capture was imminent – and my bishop was of no use this time. “Shakh yev mat,” Mikhael announced triumphantly. Check mate – and my victor was just 11 years old,” Levine writes.

“It wasn’t surprising – a few days earlier Mikhael had been crowned the national schools’ chess champion, adding to his other trophies. He’d been playing since he was five.”

“I learned from my father and grandfather – and then, weekly lessons in school,” he told me in the family’s apartment in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

One of his heroes is compatriot Levon Aronian. This charismatic 35-year-old, one of Armenia’s many grandmasters, was once number two in the world – a superstar and national hero in the country.

The author reminds that Armenia was the first country in the world to include chess on the national curriculum and Armenia has one of the highest numbers of chess grandmasters, per capita, in the world.

To see more young stars she visited the Chess House, which hosts the bust of Tigran Petrosian, the chess world champion from 1963 to 1969.

“Armenia has always enjoyed a strong link with chess, but Tigran’s victories were the revolution for us,” explained Smbat Lputian, president of the Armenian Chess Academy.

“Since our independence from the USSR in 1991, we have made fantastic progress,” he says proudly.

Lputian was the driving force behind making chess mandatory in schools, with the support of the Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan.

“The most important quality of chess is that it’s a fair game, so young children start learning a game which is clean and honourable, and it teaches them good behaviour. The child is constantly making strategic decisions – assessing the situation before making a move.” He paused. “I think this is a great benefit for society as a whole.”

Armenia now has more than 3,000 qualified trained chess teachers in its schools. Many other countries want to follow suit, according to Lputian.

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